Keyword Research 101: What is Keyword Research?

man holding a dog

If you’ve spent any time at all in the world of search engine marketing, you’ve probably run across the term ‘keyword research’ a number of times. There’s a good reason for that. Launching an SEM campaign without the guidance of well-selected keywords is like driving to work with the sunshade still across the windshield of your car: it’s highly likely you won’t get very far. And even if you do, you’ll probably end up nowhere close to where you wanted to go. So just what is keyword research? Why is it important for search engine marketing? And what does any of this have to do with Ryan Reynolds?! Read on to find out!

The Search for Relevancy

Keyword research image

As of this morning, SpyFu was tracking well over 30 million different keywords; a number that continues to grow daily. Even if you don’t believe Google’s claim that 20% of all searches are new, anything that is measured in the billions is going to be pretty difficult to comprehend, let alone target with a single PPC or SEO campaign. And as we’ll discuss later on, even if you could target one-tenth of this amount, it wouldn’t necessarily be a good thing.

So at its most basic level, keyword research is about the search for relevancy. It is the process of finding a diamond in the haystack; a needle in the rough. It is filtering the hundreds-of-millions of keywords that are distracting noise when it comes to your search marketing campaign.

To borrow an analogy, keyword research is a whole lot like using Google Earth:

“When you first open [Google Earth on your iPhone], you see the whole earth, spinning in space, as though your cell phone screen were the window of a spaceship hovering above the earth’s atmosphere… [Then] you see your country, then your state, then your city, and eventually you are looking at the exact street where you’re standing” (Introduction).

Map with a pin point logo

Keyword research works the same way: it may start from outer-space, but to be useful, it has to come down to earth. Which makes perfect sense, because after all, seeking out relevancy is what search engines are all about. People prefer search engine A or B because they believe it will serve them the most relevant results.

Google’s agenda bolsters this point. On the SEO front, the Penguin update heavily penalizes sites perceived to be overly “SEO’d” and rewards sites that publish quality, original, relevant content. And over in PPC-land, AdWords continues to impose increasingly-stringent quality controls in their paid advertising.

The Art of SEO is completely correct when it states that, “Keyword research is one of the most important, valuable, and high-return activities in the search marketing field (pg. 135).” And as the engines’ algorithms evolve and get better at displaying only the most relevant results, it is sure to remain that way for at least the foreseeable future, if not far beyond.

So with that in mind, let’s look at a few of the most important aspects of keyword research and how they help search marketers sniff-out relevant terms.

The Problem with Search Volume

One of the biggest mistakes fledgling search marketers make is thinking that keyword research begins and ends with finding the highest-volume terms in their target market. (Hell, I did it too when I started working for SpyFu .)

I specifically talk about the shortcomings of the Google Adwords Keyword Tool in a separate post, but when it comes to establishing a keyword’s relevancy, search volume is a view from 30,000 feet in the air, so to speak. You wouldn’t target prospects just because they had the most common last name, right? So why would you to base your keyword research on the most searched-for terms?

That’s not to say it’s a useless metric. Search volume is great for getting an idea of the relative competition on certain terms and for making some important inferences. For example, it would be useful for figuring out which keyword element is more searched for within your market, i.e. “best” vs. “free.”

High-volume search terms can be alluring, but it is far more effective to focus your efforts on the more specific niche and long tail keywords that are directly relevant to your goals.


Target Audience

Finding keywords that are targeted for relevant prospects is perhaps the most effective way to bring your research out of the clouds. SEOMoz said it perfectly in their intro to SEO, “It’s not always about getting visitors to your site, but about getting the right kind of visitors.”

If you’re a yoga studio based in New York, ranking high on “yoga studio 90210” doesn’t do much for your business. Sure you’ll get more visitors to your site, but that traffic isn’t likely to generate actual revenue. Advertising on “free analytics tool” might increase your inbound cliks by leaps and bounds, but will that wider audience purchase your paid tools if they’re $10,000 per month? Probably not.

satellite map birds eye viewPoor relevancy due to disambiguation issues can be a killer as well. Just look at the keyword “boxer”, for example. It rakes in 11-million global searches per month. Sounds great if you’re marketing for the boxer hall of fame or the homepage for Senator Barbara Boxer . But how much of that traffic is intended for Ryan Reynolds and his underwear? Or for the ideal companion dog? Or both?!

Ranking on keywords like these will not make you any money, and to make matters worse, they can actually cost you money in the form of useless server-load and higher CPC expenses. No bueno.

Side Note:  Technologies like Google+, Maps/Places, and semantic search, among others, are all intended as solutions to this problem. (Well…that and making some serious $$$.) The more engines know about an individual and their context – i.e. who their friends are, their preferences, location, search history, etc. –  the more relevant results can be.


Actual Search Terms

According to Wikipedia, keyword research is “a practice used by search engine optimization professionals to find and research actual search terms people enter into the search engines when conducting a search.”

In my opinion, Wikipedia fell down on the job with this definition. It’s overly-broad to the point of inaccuracy. (Plus it seems to imply that keyword research is only important to SEO’s. But I digress…)

The definition does have at least one thing going for it though: it highlights that finding actual search terms is a fundamental component of keyword research. It’s imperative that search marketers contemplate which words and phrases people actually use when conducting a search online and not what terms they believe people use.

Several industries that advertised in the early days of paid search provide us with some valuable anecdotes. Airline companies – eager to leverage PPC as a new channel for prospecting – haphazardly threw their marketing dollars at terms that seemed to make sense; terms like “low fares.”  The problem was, people didn’t actually use the phrase “low fares” to search for flights. More often, they were using the less-technical term, “cheap tickets.” 30-times more often, in fact. Which is crazy when you consider that the cost-per-click for both terms is within a few pennies. This steamily-small oversight cost the companies big bucks and crippled their reach.


Domain Purpose

You can call it “the goal of your site” if that sounds less snooty. Or your domain’s “raison d’etre” if you’re the international type. Heck, you can even call it “Digital Manifest Destiny” if you want to. But whatever you call it, don’t underestimate the importance of purpose when you conduct keyword research.

‘The Art of SEO’ has an entire chapter devoted to the purpose of your site and its relation to your target audience. If you’re so inclined, the book is definitely worth a read. Especially for new SEO’s.

Map marker next to a man in a parkTo paraphrase though, keyword research should always be conducted while looking through the lens of what your site is meant to do. You’ll need to know this information for when you’re in the execution phase of an SEM campaign, anyway, so you might as well just get clear on it now. Because unless you know what your Key Performance Indicators (KPI’s) are, you won’t have any idea if the campaign is succeeding or not. And these indicators will be one-and-the-same with your site’s purpose.

Raw traffic sites like popular forums or content clearing houses that make money through advertising exposure benefit more from a diverse range of keywords. E-commerce, lead generation, and direct marketing sites will benefit from a slightly more focused approach that revolves around the specific products and brands they carry.

Branding, reputation management, and influence websites can best reach their goals by being very specific. The book cites a reputation management case study to serve as an example.

In 2008, Whole Foods launched an aggressive SEO campaign aimed at pushing a certain result off of the SERP for the branded term “whole foods.” The rival page specifically addressed questionable business practices by Whole Foods, Inc. and boldly displayed the title tag, “What smells at Whole Foods?”


So What’s Next?

This article is in no way an exhaustive study of the subject of keyword research; there is a ton more out there you can learn if you want to. But at the very least I hope it gave you some cool links and resources to explore as well as a good idea of what keyword research is and why it’s vital to the success of any SEM campaign. Now let’s move on to a discussion of the tools you’ll need to get it done.